One Farmer’s Contribution to Climate and Wildlife Health

The Dobson farm in 1982

The Dobson family began farming in the 1830s. The current farm location, in the Upper Ottawa Valley near Cobden, was established by my great-great grandfather in the year 1857. Cattle, along with other farm animals have grazed these rolling 200 acres continuously since then. I purchased the farm from my father in the late 1960s and commenced my farm operation a couple of years later. I have always believed that only through the continuing efforts to be good stewards of the land, will our way of life be sustainable well into the future.

Bob: Just finished planting 560 trees in May

I have been asked a number of times, why did I start planting and continue to plant trees on my farm. I’m not really sure but as much as I can determine it goes back to my time growing up on my parents’ farm. As was regular practice in the 1940s and 50s we had a mixed farm operation, crops and livestock including a small herd of milk cows. The cows were out on pasture from early spring to late fall. One of my farm jobs was to fetch the cows from pasture in the late afternoon for the evening milking. As the cows and I wound our way through the farm on the treed laneway I could not help noticing how much cooler this was rather than the open fields. What a pleasant place to be or walk through on a hot summer day. Looking back, I think this was the initial reason for the planting of trees. It was simply the desire to walk through the farm on a cool laneway! As the years went by, many more reasons became apparent.

Around this same time, the 1950s, my dad was removing a lot of fencerows around the small fields on the farm creating larger fields. Tile drains were also heavily promoted. Along with the shaded laneway through the farm, many fencerow trees and shrubs disappeared. I remember feeling uncomfortable with this practice. The Ministry of Agriculture was encouraging more efficient farming methods, especially with larger farm equipment becoming more prevalent. While this practice did contribute to more efficiency and increased production, at least in the short term, it did not value the effects on the natural environment and wildlife. We now know that most wildlife species on a farm, including pollinator species, are dependent on fencerows for their very survival.

I planted the first trees in the spring of 1972 on a steep acreage of rough land near the front of the farm. At first only a few hundred trees per year, gradually increasing to 1000 trees per year for the next 30 years. In the last few years, I have cut back to about 500 trees per year. This year will mark the 51st. continuous year of incorporating trees, now totaling over 30,000 into the farm landscape. The seedlings, acquired from the Ferguson Tree Nursery in Kemptville, include several varieties of deciduous and coniferous trees plus a few wildlife shrubs (high bush cranberry, red osier dogwood, nannyberry and black elderberry).

Bob, May 2022: holding a planting spade and rodent protectors

We now have over two miles of planted upland shelter belts, 2 to 5 rows of trees wide and planted across the prevailing wind. These shelter belts reduce erosion, slow down the wind and keep more of the moisture (snow and rain) on the farm. Also, the trees provide windbreak shelter for our livestock and a home for wildlife (birds, snakes, foxes etc.) which help control insects and rodents on the farm. These shelter belts consist of eight species: spruce, cedar, pine, ash, oak, butternut, black walnut, and sugar maple.

We also have two miles of planted buffer strips (one mile on each side) in the riparian zone of the small creek that crosses our farm. These plantings include many of the same tree species as the upland shelter belts plus 4 or 5 different wildlife shrubs. These two miles of buffer strip creek plantings provide excellent habitat for many species of wildlife, while at the same time slowing down or stopping runoff from the fields entering the waterway. I find that the trees, as they grow, crack open the heavy clay soil (creating a ‘sponge’) that more easily allows water penetration after a heavy rainfall and runoff from the hay or pasture fields. The creek is now almost fully shaded. Cooler water is much more beneficial to aquatic life.

Forty years later, thousands of trees have been planted along the creek’s edge. The cattle have been fenced out of this area, with a number of alternative watering systems, including solar, created to provide plentiful and clean water for the pastured animals. The wetland reservoir pond created in the creek stores water for dry periods in mid summer. This once barren eroded area is now teeming with birds including hawks, ducks, geese and herons. Frogs, minnows, muskrat, turtles and snakes are now found along the waterway. The ecosystem can now develop in peace, as no cattle ever directly access the creek.

Another area of the farm (2.5 acres) near the creek that had somewhat poor drainage was planted in a solid block of black elderberries. We now harvest and sell elderberry products along with grass-fed beef at the farmers’ market in the city. As these berries are highly desired by the birds, they take a considerable amount of them. But the balance has been a cash crop for the farm.

When choosing the species of trees and shrubs to plant, whether on the upland shelter belt areas or the creek buffer strips, birds and wildlife have always been considered. In addition to numerous improvements to the natural environment, our livestock have also benefited with cleaner water to drink, giving us healthier cattle and improved gains.

Now, after 40 plus years of strategically incorporating trees on fragile areas of the farm, we are experiencing many win-wins. Improved hay and pasture production, healthier cattle, less erosion with slowing down snow melt and rainfall runoff, more wildlife habitat, tree windbreaks for our cattle, nesting and perching sites for the birds, carbon sequestering… Most of the trees on my farm have been placed on land that would be considered fragile at the very least, or somewhat marginal.

My advice to others: plant species appropriate to soil conditions (type and drainage), plant non-invasive and indigenous species if at all possible, choose a varied species mix to protect against disease and insects, rodents and deer, and plan to provide water to the new seedlings if the year of planting is especially dry.

One tool that I have found to be very useful is the Ontario Environmental Farm Plan and workshop  Canada-Ontario Environmental Farm Plan ( Attending the workshop and completing the workbook has helped me focus on various environmental risks on my farm.

The Dobson farm in 2015 – 30 years worth of trees later

And now, in my older years, when I am out on the farm on a hot day, I am never more than a few minutes from the cool shade of trees purposely planted over the past 40 years.



Robert Dobson

Dobson’s Grass-fed Beef

Farming with Biodiversity

3 thoughts on “Farming with Biodiversity

  • June 10, 2022 at 3:02 am

    This is so very inspiring. I treasure the memory of those cool summer walks to bring in the cows. My husband and I are beginning to replant on our portion of the family farm, so appreciate hearing about your experience. Thankyou. We currently live in a part of Ontario which heartily followed the recommended ‘efficient farming’ methods and now feel the effects of unbridled wind. So sad.

  • June 10, 2022 at 9:22 am

    As always Proud of you . sincerely The Mottiars

  • June 10, 2022 at 5:52 pm

    An excellent example of thoughtful, sustainable farming techniques that benefit all species – including humans- that live on the land.

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